John Crowe Ransom 1888-1974
American poet, critic, and editor.
Ransom is considered to be one of most important American poets and critics of the early twentieth century. He is associated with three important literary and critical movements—the Fugitives, Agrarianism, and New Criticism—and is regarded as the dean of Southern poetry and criticism. Scholars laud his contribution to twentieth-century letters, including his founding of the influential literary magazine the Kenyon Review. They contend that his verse reflects his interest in rural, traditional Southern values, mortality, the transience of beauty, and the manifestation of God in everyday life.
Ransom was born on April 30, 1888, in Pulaski, Tennessee. The son of a Methodist minister, he grew up in several small Middle Tennessee towns where his father preached. Because of this peripatetic lifestyle, Ransom and his siblings were taught at home. When he was finally enrolled in school at the age of ten, school officials realized that he was academically gifted and recommended that he be sent to the Bowen School, a local private school that had a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. In 1903 he graduated from high school and was admitted to Vanderbilt University. After two years, he was forced to drop out because of financial problems. He taught secondary school for two years, and then returned to Vanderbilt to finish his education. In 1909 he received his bachelor's degree, and because of his excellent grades, he received a Rhodes scholarship. He earned another bachelor's degree, in Litterae Humaniores, at Oxford University, which required reading Greek and Latin history, literature, and philosophy in the original languages. Returning to the United States, he took a job for one year teaching Latin and Greek at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. He then returned to Vanderbilt as an instructor and became involved with a group of students and faculty members that met frequently to discuss religion and philosophy; this group became known as the Fugitives. During this time he began to write and publish poetry in local periodicals. In 1917 he joined the U.S. Army, and he served overseas in France during World War I with the Fifth Field Artillery. While on duty, he revised his poems, which were published in 1919 as Poems about God.
Upon his discharge from the army, he intended to move to New York City to work as a freelance journalist, but ended up returning to Vanderbilt University as an instructor. He resumed his frequent meetings and poetry sessions with the Fugitives, which included such members as Allen Tate and Donald Davidson. In 1922 the group began publishing a poetry magazine entitled the Fugitive, which published Southern poetry influenced by the modernism of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. The Fugitive, which was published until 1925, proved to be an important magazine. Critics note that during this time Ransom wrote his best poetry. In 1924 his second collection of verse, Chills and Fever, was published and garnered much positive critical attention. His last book of verse, Two Gentlemen in Bonds was published in 1927 and was deemed an impressive poetic achievement. From that point, he wrote only one new poem, and was satisfied to revise his earlier verse and concentrate on his literary criticism. The creative and critical spirit inspired by the Fugitives led to a new literary movement, Agrarianism, as well as a new way to analyze art called New Criticism. Agrarianism promoted the virtues of the rural South, favoring an agrarian economy over an industrial one, as well as a connection to nature and a rejection of materialism. In 1937, after he left Vanderbilt University and took a position at Kenyon College in Ohio, Ransom became a vital figure in the development of New Criticism. As promulgated in the Kenyon Review, which Ransom founded in 1939, New Criticism advocated analyzing a work of art on its own, independent of outside influences. Critics have had a mixed critical reaction to Ransom's critical theories. In 1964 the publication of his revised edition of Selected Poems led to a National Book Award. Ransom died in Gambier, Ohio, on July 3, 1974.
Major Poetic Works
In the period between 1915 and 1927 Ransom wrote around 160 poems that he revised several times in the following years. Critics describe his verse as unmistakably Southern in character and full of dichotomies: mortality and the vigor of youth; agrarianism and industrialism; idealism and reality; the tension between mind and body, as well as between reason and sensibility. It is also noted that he was able to establish a certain aesthetic distance in his poetry that affords the reader an objective, clear perspective on his work. His first collection of verse, Poems about God, explores religious and spiritual matters and is regarded as heavily influenced by the work of Robert Frost. Ransom later rejected these poems, contending that he had put too much emphasis on structure and not enough on “texture,” or figurative language. His next few collections, including Chills and Fever and Two Gentlemen in Bonds, contain his best-known and admired poems. In “The Equilibrists” Ransom underscores the tension between reason and passion, as two lovers repress their desire in order to adhere to societal mores. In the epitaph to the poem, Ransom memorializes their love, which will be consummated in death. The concept of death and decay is a recurring thematic concern in Ransom's verse. His renowned poem “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter” explores the death of a young, energetic girl through the eyes of her neighbor. The piece expresses the neighbor's anger at such a senseless and tragic death. In “Janet Waking,” a young girl is forced to face mortality when she finds her pet hen has died during the night. The fleeting nature of feminine beauty is the subject of “Blue Girls,” a poem that focuses on a group of Southern schoolgirls who revel in their attractiveness and youth. In “Old Mansions,” Ransom asserts that ideals of the South should be preserved in spite of changing circumstances and the passage of time.
Commentators debate whether Ransom's legacy rests more on his poetry or his critical work. Critics that favor his poetry argue that despite his limited poetic output, he was able to reflect modern sensibility and combine qualities such as delicacy and strength, as well as elegance and earthiness in his verse. They also consider him a master stylist, and praise his poems as well-crafted, finely textured pieces that explore the ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies that make up modern life. Recent critical studies have examined Ransom's tendency to revise his work, the role of meter in his poetry, the influence of his religious faith on his verse, and the representation of Southern women in his poems. The influence of Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot has also been a frequent topic of critical discussion. Although some reviewers find Ransom's poetry to be cold and distant and view him as a minor American poet, many consider him a distinctive and profoundly influential writer whose verse will not only endure but deserves greater critical attention.